By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky., Nov. 19, 2010 - As winter sets in and temperatures start plummeting, the 101st Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team soldiers operating in Paktika province, Afghanistan, are keeping motivated and focused on their mission -- thanks, their commanders say, to their "Currahee spirit" and support from the home front.
These soldiers are operating in some of the toughest conditions imaginable. Many are based at combat outposts so isolated they're reachable only by air, patrolling at altitudes beginning at 7,400 feet, making regular contact with the enemy, and suffering seven losses just two months into their deployment.
The brigade, the last of the 30,000-troop combat "surge" force to deploy to Afghanistan to support President Barack Obama's Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, has weathered some difficult times, its commanders agreed during a videoconference conducted here from their brigade headquarters at Forward Operating Base Sharana.
"It's tough here in many ways," said Army Lt. Col. Dave Womack, commander of the 506th Infantry Regiment's 1st Battalion "Red Currahees."
"It ain't Shangri-la," he continued. "The soldiers of Task Force Red Currahee live in austere environments. They are close to the enemy. They are partnered with their Afghan brothers and they are going out daily, conducting combat missions."
To date, those missions have left seven brigade soldiers dead and more wounded. Just two days ago, the soldiers of Troop C, 1st Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, paid last respects to two of their fallen soldiers during a memorial ceremony at Forward Operating Base Connolly in Nangarhar province.
Army Spc. Anthony Vargas and Army Spc. David C. Lutes both died from injuries suffered when an improvised explosive device exploded during a Nov. 8 patrol in the village of Wazir.
Understanding the toll these losses take on his brigade, Army Col. Sean Jenkins, the brigade commander, said the Currahees draw strength from each other, their families, the Fort Campbell community, and the nation as a whole as they continue their mission.
"We can't have bad days here as leaders," he said. "We can have tough days, and there are tough days. But you can feel the support from back home -- the phone calls, the emails. They lift you up early in the morning."
Womack said he's amazed by the support his soldiers receive from all corners, and its positive impact on morale.
"Every day, the support we get is unbelievable," he said. "An aircraft will land [or] a convoy will drop in with a package from a loved one. And that package will mean everything. In some cases, it means extra 'lickeys and chewies' and chow, and sometimes it's just a letter from home that connects you."
The commanders said they're indebted to their families and everyone else who has reached out to them, and offered assurances that they're coping with the challenges as they concentrate on the mission.
"It's really easy to focus around here, because the mission is important," Womack said. "We know why we are here and why we do it, and of course, we fight for one another and the mission at hand."
As the soldiers perform "incredible" work, Womack urged those back home not to worry about troop morale. "It's great," he said. "But keep up the support because it makes a difference. We appreciate it on this end."
Army Lt. Col. Dave Preston, with the 801st Brigade Support Battalion, knows the importance of letters and care packages from home. Each day, his soldiers deliver 3,000 pounds of mail to the brigade's myriad operating sites, including remote combat outposts.
No combat outpost "goes more than five days without getting mail," he said.
Mail deliveries are expected to climb dramatically as the holidays approach. Back at Fort Campbell, rear detachment leaders, family readiness group volunteers, and community members are assembling holiday packages to ship off to the brigade, ensuring no Currahee soldier gets overlooked.
Next to mail, Preston's maintainers know that the next best way to a soldier's heart is through the stomach. So about once a month, they treat troops at outlying combat outposts to the "Steak and Ice Cream Express." Preston and a couple of his cooks set up a grill and prepare and serve up steaks, potatoes, corn on the cob, and heaping bowls of ice cream.
It's a big hit with the troops, but Preston said it's just as meaningful for his own soldiers who enjoy taking care of their brothers in arms.
"Despite the separations from their families and the schedule, morale remains high," he reported. "They love doing their job and taking care of soldiers."
"This is a very challenging environment," said Army Lt. Col. Ivan Beckman, commander of the Special Troops Battalion Apaches. "But morale is very high for us over here. We are focused on the mission, and focused on taking care of each other."
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